Books

book review

A stroll through tradition of women about town that takes a few wrong turns

“American Girl in Italy” by photographer Ruth Orkin was taken in Florence in 1951.
copyright 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951 Used with special permission of Ruth Orkin Photo Archive
“American Girl in Italy” by photographer Ruth Orkin was taken in Florence in 1951.

Journalist Martha Gellhorn’s peregrinations often precipitated the ire of her then-husband, Ernest Hemingway.

In 1944, while she was reporting from the Italian front, he sent her a whiny telegram asking: “Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?” The answer seems to have been obvious.

Gellhorn is one of several notable women — including the novelists Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf. and George Sand and the French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda — who are profiled anecdotally in Lauren Elkin’s “Flâneuse.”

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Elkin, an expatriate New Yorker who lives and teaches mostly in Paris, is attuned to the tensions between the urge to nest and the need to wander. And she is interested in the stories of women who walked metropolises in pursuit of discovery and in defiance of cultural norms (and, on occasion, their retrograde male partners).

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One can imagine “Flâneuse” as a provocative essay questioning the gendered notion of the flâneur, tying the freedom of women to wander the city to larger feminist arguments. And Elkin has indeed published shorter, more rudimentary, and presumably more focused takes on her ideas, which she encapsulates in her opening chapter.

But more, as we know, is sometimes less. Despite some intriguing byways, the book as a whole seems padded and ungainly — an awkward conflation of literary memoir and cultural criticism that is probably too self-indulgently academic and idiosyncratic to engage the general reader.

Choosing her female subjects with apparent randomness, Elkin ropes together vastly different enterprises. Gellhorn, for example, was often deeply purposeful in her wanderings — in reporting, for example, on the violent disruption of quotidian life in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.

Varda, by contrast, homes in on the ways wandering itself can be transformative, partly by dint of the encounters it spurs. Elkin focuses on Varda’s film “Cléo from 5 to 7,’’ in which the titular character, shaken by the fear of impending death, evolves from the object of outside scrutiny to an observer in her own right.

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The lesser known figure Sophie Calle (whose name means street in Spanish) “uses her life as a springboard to her art,” Elkin writes, in a formulation that would surely apply to most artists — if not always quite as literally.

In one instance, Calle follows and photographs a married stranger as he traverses the labyrinthine streets of Venice. She stalks him, Elkin says, as though he were an elusive lover. Later, Calle makes a film with her ex-husband, “No Sex Last Night,” that documents (and at times stages) a cross-country road trip that “may or may not recount the unraveling of their relationship.”

Elkin devotes the bulk of two chapters to protest and revolutionary movements in Paris — on the assumption that marching is another manifestation of walking. Here, as elsewhere, she voyages far afield and distorts the organizing notion of the flâneuse, whose walking is not generally in the service of some larger cause.

From forays into cultural criticism Elkin can turn on a dime to memoir. Scenes, events, and observations from her restlessly peripatetic life thread through the book, sometimes intrusively, but also too sketchily. In one summary paragraph near the end, she mentions marriage and multiple pregnancies, but tells us nothing about them.

Though she is deeply rooted in her beloved Paris, Elkin’s most absorbing autobiographical writing is her account of an alienating stay in Tokyo. Elkin relocated, reluctantly, to Japan to maintain a relationship with a since-jettisoned fiancé.

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But she has trouble warming to the crowded, antiseptic city, which she regards as too sprawling and forbidding for long walks. The banker fiancé seems gruffly unsympathetic. Elkin’s lack of linguistic comfort is a factor, too, and she detours into a discussion of her faltering attempts to master some fledgling Japanese.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate “Flâneuse” is as a formal embodiment of the concept it struggles to define. From that perspective, the intellectual meandering and genre-crossing nature of her enterprise can be seen as a clever riff on flâneuserie — not simply an exhausting literary slog.

FLÂNEUSE:

Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London

By Lauren Elkin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages, $26

Julia M. Klein, the Forward’s contributing book critic, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.